Why I Won’t Play
I was one of those college students who paid careful attention in class because I took terrible notes. In retrospect, I probably would’ve been better served by improving my note taking skills. Much of what my professors had to say blended into a kind of buzzing. Certain lessons, however, have persisted even after thirty years. One lesson in particular, taught by Jim Merritt, my instructor for Romantic Poetry at Brooklyn College, has had a profound effect on my writing. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a writing class, yet I can still hear Prof. Merritt’s voice in my head. We were discussing the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley when the subject of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came up. Merritt, a man with a wonderfully expressive face, frowned:Reed Farrel Coleman, Brooklyn born and raised, is the former Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. He has written ten novels in three series including two under his pen name Tony Spinosa. His eleventh novel, Tower, co-authored with Ken Bruen, will premier in Fall 2009. Reed has been twice nominated for the Edgar Award, mystery fiction’s most prestigious honor. He has won the Shamus Award twice along with the Barry and Anthony Awards. He was the editor of the short story anthology Hardboiled Brooklyn. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Wall Street Noir, Damn Near Dead, Brooklyn Noir 3, and several other publications. Reed is an adjunct lecturer in creative writing at Hofstra University and lives with his family on Long Island.
“Okay everyone,” Merritt said, “close your eyes and imagine Frankenstein’s monster.”
After fifteen seconds, Merritt went around the room, selecting students at random to describe what they had seen in their mind’s eye as they conjured up their images of the monster. To a person, we described a gigantic green monster with a flat head, a jagged scar on its forehead, bolts in its neck, dull, heavy-lidded eyes… In other words, we all saw the same thing. Merritt’s point? The movies had robbed readers of the joy of imagining the monster for themselves. The movie image of the monster had taken the romance out of the reading.
That lesson stays with me every day as I write. In the Moe Prager series, I do occassionally give very slight—so slight I can’t recall them—hints about Moe’s looks, but I am very careful not to actually describe him. If I do describe any of the major recurring characters, it’s usually through one or two aspects of their physical appearance. Moe’s wife Katy, for instance, has thin lips and is curvy. Their daughter Sarah has red hair. Mr. Roth dresses well, walks with a cane, and has a number tattooed on his forearm. That, however, is usually the extent of the description of the central recurring characters in the series. Emotion is at the heart of why I take this approach. I want the reader to form, in his or her own mind, the image of the characters. In this way, the reader becomes more emotionally invested in the characters or, to phrase it a bit differently, the reader contributes more of him or herself to the characters. I want a reader to develop a vision of Moe not based upon a set of physical characteristics, but based upon his emotional, philosophical, and moral underpinnings. I want the reader, in the same way I do, to build Moe from the inside out.
None of this is to say I wouldn’t sell the movie rights to the books. I would in a nano second, but there’s no denying a movie would change new readers’ perceptions of Moe. It is also not to say that I don’t have an actor in mind to play Moe. I have all the books cast in my head, but I won’t share my choices. Again, I wouldn’t want my conception of Moe to taint yours.
The Page 69 Test: Redemption Street.
The Page 69 Test: Empty Ever After.